Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.
During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.
Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Abel Méndez by Jon Phillips on 2021 January 19,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Abel Méndez, professor of physics and astrobiology at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. In this interview, Professor Méndez discusses his upbringing in Puerto Rico and early interest in astronomy, his education at the University of Puerto Rico and work at Fermilab, and the early stages of his work on astrobiology with NASA. He describes the origins of the Planetary Habitability Lab at Arecibo and his work studying exoplanets for potential suitability for life. Finally, he discusses the work environment at Arecibo, the impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, the collapse of the telescope’s dish, and the potential future of the Observatory.
This is Jon Phillips, assistant oral historian at the American Institute of Physics. I am here with Professor Abel Méndez of the University of Puerto Rico. Today is January 19th, 2021, and we will get started. So, just to start things off, can you tell me your current official title at UPR?
Yes, so I am Professor Abel Méndez, professor of physics and astrobiology at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. This is a university part of 11 campuses of the University of Puerto Rico system, and this is the closest one to the Arecibo Observatory, about half an hour from the observatory.
So, to sort of take things all the way back to the beginning, can you tell me a bit about where you’re from originally?
So I am totally 100% from Puerto Rico, so I do have—well, half of my family live in Lorain, Ohio, but that was—they were—they moved early on for, I think, in the ’40s and the ’50s, and so that’s why I have half family there. But my original fathers are from the center of the island, a town called San Sebastián, and [??] and they move when they were very young, and they met in Ohio, in Lorain, Ohio. They married there and then but, eventually, they all wanted to come back to Puerto Rico, and they did after 10 years or so there, and they moved to a town of—they moved to another town, Bayamón, which is a big town [??] and then to Vega Baja. So once they moved that in that town, Vega Baja, which is between Arecibo and San Juan, then they started building a home there, and I was the first one there [laugh].
I was born there in that town. They had already three children—
—OK, two boys and a girl, my brothers, and they later on have another one, so we are five children. And then, so, I was born in the town of Vega Baja, and the whole—my whole life, I’ve been trying to be here. I love my town. And my parents are still here, and they built a home down there in [??] Vega Baja, very close to the center of the islands, very to the south. But this is a northern town but it’s really not big enough. And then they—so I was saying I was born there, and now they live with me, so I took—I’m taking care of them.
They’re still living. I take care of them.
And then what did your parents do while you were growing up?
Oh, my father is a—was a policeman—actually, a detective, so he had to carry a weapon and never had to use it against anybody [laugh] because he was only a detective taking fingerprints and pictures. I knew he had a weapon [laugh] which he had hidden [laugh]. He had a special place to hid it far away. But we were never curious about that. I did have two brothers that went into the police career. My mother was a housewife there.
Was there any expectation that you would follow in those footsteps and also join the police?
No, because the thing that I was grow up is that there was no pressure at all to any career. I didn’t have that pressure. Like, I see a lot of people telling you, “Oh, you have to be a lawyer. You have to be engineer. You have to be a doctor, because that will give you a lot of money.” You don’t have that pressure, and my only pressure that I have from my mom is that is do what you love. That was it.
And so my two older brothers decided to take a career in the police as detective also. But then I decided I liked to draw when I was a kid, and I drew mostly spaceships. So my mom thought that maybe I wanted to be an astronaut also. That was far from the truth because I don’t—
—like to be in airplane so [laugh] I don’t like—
—flight [laugh]. So, but I—but the core is that I loved space, so I drew a lot, and through school, I’ve been drawing for different school projects, like murals and teachers for high schools and that kind of stuff. But, so there was no relation at all beyond that, and I knew that I also draw spaceships through planets, going through planets because, you know, I was drawing astronomy stuff.
I remember one of them in, like, early drawings which I was discussing with my dad about one year ago [laugh] because I drew the Earth. When I learn about the moon, what is the moon, somewhere—I was a little kid—then I drew Earth, and drew the atmosphere and drew the moon inside the atmosphere [laugh]. And my dad corrected me, “No, that’s not true [laugh].”
“The moon is outside the atmosphere.” And the earliest recall that I have of something astronomical was that in 1976 or so, during the landing of the Viking’s mission to Mars, so I remember a lot of talking about that first mission to Mars, and that my mom taking me to in front of a TV just to see—in one of my grandparents’ house, which has the color TV. We didn’t have at that time a color TV, so they had a color TV. And, anyway, the first picture was in black and white anyway [laugh].
So they put me in the middle of the living room, and I—there was a lot of family around, everyone expecting, you know, this expectation of the first picture from Mars, everybody thinking aliens or something like that.
And I remember the picture going in stripes, which is true. That’s the way it came, the first picture live, and I was intrigued. And I was talking to my mom maybe two years ago about that moment, just trying to recall, which she remembers everything else, what she actual [??] that I was wearing a red t-shirt [laugh] without the sleeves, so.
But, OK, so I confirmed the story [laugh].
And I remember that, and that was something I think powerful for me. I don’t know if I was drawing before or after that, those spaceship drawings, but it was all through that time, so probably I was 6 or 7 years old.
And when you were drawing these spaceships and working on that sort of thing, were you also interested in sort of science fiction at the time, or you were more interested in sort of real spaceships, the actual probes and such?
Mostly real. I had good teachers, which knew about my curiosities of astronomy, and they give me—they gave me books. They bought books. So I didn’t have a lot of access to books. There was no internet, so everything was limited to books. But I had books through—the books through school, and then the teacher’s giving me books.
And a few stories in particular that I remember of that time is that I think it was April 12 or 11, the first in 1981, the launch of the first shuttle. So I was excited to see that. It was in the early morning, so I skipped school just to go to see that through the morning, and all the story about the [laugh] first Space Shuttle. And the next day, when I went to school, I told them or they asked me, “Why you skip school?” And I say I was watching—they say “Yes, OK, that’s fine.”
So that’s—I’m telling you this so you understand that they were very supporting of me, those teachers, and giving me books. And I remember asking for going to the Arecibo Observatory at some point. I don’t know where I learned. Maybe it was through a TV program or so. But I learned about Arecibo Observatory, and I learned that they have a telephone number for—and I got that telephone number. And we didn’t have a landline at that moment, at the time.
But there was one at my school, which was not far from my home. So I called there, and I talk with a guy there that was giving—he was part of the staff supporting scientists, and also assisting to take care of visitors. So at that time, there was no visitor center, so the only way was through reservations like that. So I told him that I am a student. I just want to visit Arecibo. I love science, astronomy, and I want to go over there.
And he’d say, "Yes, we’re going to make this day," which I don’t remember particular but I think it was a Friday or so, and deal done. So I came back to my home and said, "Mom, I have a reservation to go to the Arecibo Observatory." And my dad have a chief for—he was [??] for his job, so he was able to. And through the day, through the day—so we were at the early morning over there.
And that story which I describe a little bit of that in one of the Nature articles that was recently published, I asked my mom, trying to recall everything about that, why I came—we [??] alone and not my brothers. And they got thinking, and they realized, eventually saying, "Oh, they were all at school. It was the school [laugh] during school day."
Oh, that makes sense. That’s why I have the telephone because I was going to school [laugh] and call for the school, and that’s why they were not there [laugh], and I was the only one. So I skipped the school again.
And how old were you when you—?
Yes, I think I was 12, I think—
Oh, wow, OK.
And so, at that point, did you already have a sense that you wanted to go into astronomy to—or—
—astrophysics, to go to university—
—and study that?
—definitely. That was the same year, 1981, so it was the same year that I saw the Space Shuttle. It was about—this probably happened in the second semester, during spring, so, during about autumn, so that same year. And I knew when I went there that that’s what I wanted. I wanted to learn more, and I have a wonderful experience.
So people ask me if that Arecibo Observatory is something that actually put me in the career of astronomy. I don’t think so. I think I visit because I loved astronomy. It just gave me something else, a support through the whole years that I don’t feel like my interest in astronomy was something far away, secluded. No, I feel like right at home—
—with astronomy [laugh]. That’s something for me normal. Yeah, we have the biggest telescope there, so that’s—astronomy is something like—so that probably encouraged me more to go. And maybe, otherwise, I don’t know what would happen.
Did you have sort of the opportunity to pursue astronomy before going to university at either at high school or on your own in your backyard? Were you able to do that—
Oh, yes, yes, I’m [??]—no, that’s hidden, my old telescope [laugh]—
—which I still have. So I, yes, we, as I said, we live in a rural area. There was not much light, so I had a nice view of the sky, even the Milky Way, so I was doing a lot of observations through the telescope. So we were not rich in my home. We were middle-class or poor, but it was—I didn’t feel like that because maybe everybody was like that [laugh] around me. So it wasn’t a question that—it was not in my mind that we are poor or not, or no.
And but my—one of my brothers, because he was working, he was able to give a present, a telescope, one of my older brothers. So he gave me as a present a telescope, and then later on with Mom, I made the[?] sacrifice a computer, one of the early computers of that time. So by ’82/’83, I already had a computer.
It was a color computer, those old color computers that were sold by RadioShack.
Yes, TRS-80, yes, that’s—that in particular, the color computer. So I had one of those, and I learned BASIC, and I have a small telescope refractor, a 60 millimeters, very common at that time. And that’s still my tools [laugh]. I don’t even know at that time that you will be using computer and telescope through the whole time, and you would only get—the telescope will get bigger, and the computer will get smaller [laugh].
So that’s the only difference. So I—through the [??] almost—I remember it was almost every night. I lot—I have a lot of records. I use my telescope. I look at the stars. I look at—I bought a lot of books, a lot of books through mail order, and of astronomy, star charts, which I still have down there in my library [laugh].
And so I have a lot of books, and so I follow the stars, look at different objects, follow the planets, and that was a common activity for me. And using the computer to code that, in those magazines, there was programs to track positions and you can code the programs. And so that was a common thing.
I remember, now that I said that, I bought this book through mail order that I also remember buying toy models of a Space Shuttle, and I order NASA through the Kennedy Space Center, I ordered this—a model Space Shuttle. So this is 1981, so I ordered the Space Shuttle, and I ordered also a Apollo [??] mission kit, which is—was the model with—connected to the [??]. And I still regret that NASA didn’t send that to me [laugh] because they say it’s in back order. But I never receive it. So I still complain about that with NASA. They owe me that [laugh].
[laugh] Maybe someday, it will show up in your mailbox [laugh].
[laugh] Yeah, so but I have the Space Shuttle. They got the Space Shuttle. And I wrote a lot to different NASA centers asking for information and pictures, and they were—I don’t know if they still do this. But they were very diligent with that [laugh], and sending me a lot of books and pictures, which I still have, but amazing posters, information, books about astronomy. So I continuously wrote, and they send me and send me and send me, for free.
That was part of the—and that was a strong support that I also get from NASA that way. Yeah, it works, it works [laugh].
[laugh] Very cool. Then were you also in contact with other amateur astronomers, maybe locally near Vega or was it just sort of you working on your own?
I was working on my own, no, no. My—the—I—because we live in—there was no many houses around, it was rural, so I didn’t have that many friends that—and those that I have from school, they were not interested [laugh] in that. Probably were more interested in sports or something like that—
—at that time, right.
So when you got to university, you knew right off the bat you wanted to study astronomy.
So what was the program like at UPR when you got there?
Well, there was no astronomy program, so—and I didn’t want to go elsewhere, so I wanted to stay here. So the closest thing was physics. I had a [??] grades, and people were telling me, and, for the first time, I felt that pressure. People around me telling me, not from Mom and Dad, but everybody tell me, "Well, with those grades, you can go through engineer, so why don’t you go to engineer?" "And no, no, no, I just want to study astronomy. I just want to study physics."
And I read a lot. I was doing—I don’t have—there was no calculus at the high school level, so I got a book of calculus, and did the problems myself. And that helped. That was a big difference. So they skipped me at the—in high school. I entered through algebra, but they say, "Well, no, no, no," they took me, and they skipped me through algebra and trigonometry, which usually was for the last year of high school.
And so I took only took one math there, the last one [laugh]. But there was no calculus. I was taking through 11 and 12, I was not taking—I didn’t have any math, so I was taking it by my own. There was a possibility. They told me that I can go through the university, and then learn there more, and they could, you know, as a chair[?] in the class, and they have a program like that for high school students.
But that was far from home, and that was—that would be too complicated. So I just took it by myself. So when I went to the university, and took my first—in my first year, I took calculus, my score for that was 100.
That was a so easy test, and I was very young in that group, and I was looking through all my peers, and looking at number 10-something, 20-something, and I [laugh] just hid—
—my score. So math was easy, and [??] was because I love it. I was doing math problem. And during my high school, I had a teacher which put me in science bowl, math bowl, especially math competition through the island. We went once, we went first in Puerto Rico.
And he was very—he’s very proud because there was two competitions for private schools competition, and not private schools. How you say that? [laugh]
Yeah, the public state schools?
Public, public, that’s the word [laugh], a public school. There was a public school, and there was competitions for private school. They were separated. But my score was higher than the ones—
—in the private school [laugh].
And then he was so proud of that. He put it everywhere—
—in the [laugh] school. And he still have that in his Facebook page.
He have—he took a picture of that, still that, and once in a while, I see it [laugh] and that he’s bringing that. So he’s—he was one of those teachers that always encourage me, and eventually I was able to give something to him because one of the—and this, more recently, we were doing tours for the general public as part of our observation program at the observatory. And that program, I could invite people, and so once I invited him. And I put out a control at the observatory [laugh] just a surprise to him. Just you would be the—have the honor to make the first observation today, just have to click—
—there that bottom mouse, and the observatory will start operating. So, and so I have been in contact with all those teachers through time.
So when you started majoring in physics, and still there’s no astronomy, were you able to keep a sort of an astronomical or astrophysics focus on that—
—or did you end up getting tracked—
—further afield into theory?
Well, almost sidetracked because this—when I entered university, there was not that many astronomers in the campus. I went to the campus of UPR Mayagüez, which is in the west. I could take the one closer to our home but the problem was that, in that campus, there was more engineering programs and more computers. And I know now I made the right decisions. There were—it was the first campus connected to the internet before the others. So I saw there the internet being born [laugh] in the island.
And so I went to that campus, and there were no—there were only two professors teaching astronomy, related to astronomy, and but there was other topics that one professor saw me, and talked me about particle physics. And I got excited about particle physics because it was connected to cosmology, and that’s important, blah, blah. And there’s opportunities to work at—through the summer Fermilab. So I spent all my summers during my bachelor doing—going to Fermilab, five summers actually, five summers. And it was just four years so [laugh] in the last semester, I graduated there.
So I went to Fermilab, and that was a great formation experience. So that’s where I really learned FORTRAN, I learned about—more about programming, about, you know, beyond particle physics and cosmology, I learned about important scientists and that was—so I almost get sidetrack about that. Meanwhile, I was taking astronomy, all astronomy courses at the campus, and mathematics, and mathematics on computers, all related to computers and mathematics and astronomy. I was taking as much as I can. So I squeezed that in my four years, but the summers was to experience Fermilab.
And then those summers at Fermilab, were there any specific projects that you were assisting on there, or was it just, sort of, educational?
Oh, no, when you go over there, you are actually going to work in a project, and contribute to the project. So I was working in the particle physics designing of detectors.
So it was more that part of the design with a software to make sure that future detectors that are being built, they’re going to be built, have the right specifications. So I was designing—it was very interesting because I was designing 3D—in three dimensions detectors, and doing simulations on particle collision. They have some work for that. And they track, and I have to reconstruct the initial condition just to see if I was seeing the initial particles according to the detector.
So I worked mostly—it was the same because it was with this professor there at the campus, so it was more into the same project once again having more detectors. So that was my job there. Other students there were doing more experimental working with more experimental, but I was—I always wanted to do something more theoretical or more in computer, more than touching [laugh] the electronics and equipment, which I like and I do a lot but [laugh] it’s not something that—I prefer theoretical work in computers.
Yeah, makes sense. And then was there anything specific that sort of decided you on sticking with astronomy or astrophysics as opposed to pursuing particle physics further?
Hmm, not quite sure. [Pause] I don’t know. I just—oh, OK, maybe it’s this. So I remember I finished that. I entered the other school through there, and so there was this possibility, and I saw one professor that was doing something very interesting for me, and it was in biophysics. And it was a strong connection—it was more physics than biology, but, anyway, it was biophysics.
And I was very intrigued about that topic, and I had—I requested during that time also a summer—once I entered graduate school, there was a summer program for graduate students, and I went to NASA Goddard. And in that program, I work with—oh, wow, I remember how this happened. Wow. So I was assigned because I wanted to do computers, I went to that—I was accepted for that, a NASA Goddard program. Maybe it was 1992 or so? Don’t remember, 1991, OK.
And in that—so they assigned me to a group working with radiation, and I was supposed to give support for them for the software and computer, and they have one of those before the Mac computer [laugh]. It was a Lisa, I think. It was the computer before the Mac, and I was, like, "Wait, wait, wait, why are we using"—[laugh] I was complaining [laugh]—"why are we using this kind"—we use a Xerox Operating System.
By that time, I was using—I learned about the Macs at Fermilab. So by ’86 or ’87, once the first Macs were available, I learned about using Macs, and I loved Macs at that time. So this is 1991 [laugh] or so, and they gave me this old computer and said, "That’s part of the original budget."
The project is almost done, so that was one of the first computer. It has every data, that’s the computer. And I didn’t know[?] that I hated that much that—and what I supposed to do, this and that? It was more technical in the computer. I didn’t like that much. So by the next day, I called the manager of that program. I told her, "I am not very happy with what I am doing. And then is there something more space-related, astronomy-related?"
And they said, "OK, yes, OK, let me see what they can do." And, soon enough, they called—later on in the afternoon, one of the astronomers called me, and told me, "OK, I’m doing this project about solar physics, and radiation in space, and plasma." Oh, anything would be good [laugh].
And he was Puerto Rican—
—at Goddard. His name is Adolfo Viñas. He’s retired now. And then at Goddard, I met a lot of interesting people, and I remember talking to one of the—one scientist there. His name—I don’t remember his last name. But his first name was Mario, and everybody called him the Great Mario.
He was Argentinian, and he’s a very tall guy, and he worked with plasma and magnetic field detectors for the boilers[?]. And I was having an informal conversation with him after [??] and he asked me about my plans for the future. And I told him, "Well, I would love to work through a NASA center, oh, yes."
And he asked me then, "What do you like to do?" "I like to do theory, astronomy, and physics, and planets, and blah, blah, blah, blah. That’s what I want." [laugh] And he told me, "Wait, wait, wait, so that’s—is NASA center will be good [laugh] for that. Stay at the university, because that’s the rom…" And this is his words, it was in Spanish, so [laugh], "That’s the romantic life of a scientist."
"Just stay at university, you can do science. If you go to NASA, you will be managing project. You will have exclusivity of those mission, data, whatever. But you will mostly managing project. Do you like managing project?" "No, I hate that."
"So then stay at the university. You will do science." And [laugh] he was so true [laugh].
[laugh] So I think that shifted me. Later on, they called me to—Adolfo called me. There was a position at NASA Goddard just for a support scientist in the astronomy division, and it talked about that. "And you like to live Puerto Rico?" And I said, "Thank you." [laugh] But I was lucky because there was not many physicists in there at the university, and I got a job at the university.
But, anyway, after I got that summer experience, I think more reinforced back my astronomy, what I wanted to do in astronomy. And, anyway, there was only that professor at that time doing this probably the biophysics, which is [??] intriguing for me, and so I did it. So I completed and presented a thesis of currents in cell membranes, so that was the project about. [laugh] So still more physics than [laugh] biology, but that was what—that was my thesis. And as soon as I finish, then there was an opening at the university, a campus. They were requesting something—body with experience in astronomy.
I only had my experience through courses and original[?] courses and that—and so one of the campus of—in the—of the 11 campus of the UPR system was requesting. It was a temporary, for one years or maybe more, but at least one year. And so I accepted that, so I could—I went straight from graduate school to teaching. And then in that position, I was teaching also a course of astronomy, and we had a telescope. We had a telescope in the—a nice telescope. It was about 14 inches, and it has a lab, and we have a lab assistant.
It was a very nice environment for me teaching that first year. But then I have from other campus a call from friends that told me, "Well, we need somebody that’s doing something with astronomy, and we are doing some projects that are related to astronomy, and do you want to come over here?" That was calling me from UPR Arecibo, which I work now. So, and they say, "This is not a temporary. We have a permanent position available, if you want it." So I say, "Wait, yes."
And it was closer to my hometown, so it takes just 40 minutes by driving, very nice drive through highway, and the other was about one hour and a half from my home in Vega Baja. So I stay there, and as soon I have a position there, a tenure track position, then I wrote my first proposal, and then I decided to do what I wanted to go through back around: astronomy, life, astrobiology. And that was in 1996, I wrote my first proposal for a—trying to do a simulation of environment on Mars, and test some potential biology growth in those conditions.
I mean, because if you subject[?] to a simulation of the [??] cycle of the surface of Mars, you will have through the nighttime, you will have those periods that at least everything will froze up, and maybe two, three hours during the day on the surface that you will have hot enough for something. But my—the problem was that during that cold[?] cycle is anything, anybody will survive, any microbial life, or that will destroy everything. So in terms of we can be sure that if you put contamination from those missions, if we leave that there, and how many days would need to happen? How many day cycles to be sure that it would sterilize any life through those night cycles that will froze over? So that was the project, and I requested equipment to do that.
And I remember one particular involving a student, one of the weird[?] projects what—I have a [??] chamber, and we lower the pressure, we lower the temperature, and we see at some point where it’s starting to boil. And once water was starting to boil, and it froze over while boiling, and it was weird because it was like a—in the test tube, it was taking almost all the [??] and you see the bubbles, but it was frozen. I tried to replicate that many times, and I couldn’t [laugh]. I just—the water froze over like there but no special shape[?], not like a boiling. So, well, that was a [??]. And so that was my first project for astrobiology.
One influential thing that I have at that time, because I say 1996, it was the Mars meteorite. So, for me, Mars was hot, and I wanted to do something—doing something about Mars, and I decided to do that project. And I remember the NASA Pathfinder landing in 1997, I think, when it went to Mars. And so—and then, through that time, I remember people saying this thing about astrobiology, and, OK, we, you know, we might be—so NASA might be starting soon an Astrobiology Institute, so this is the 1997/1998.
And I remember there was a Mars Conference in 1999 or so. I remember I went to that, and then I remember the—when the first NASA Astrobiology Conference, I think, was in 2000 or so, I remember, it was ’99 or 2001. But I think it was 2000. So that announcement of the first Astrobiology Conference, and I got excited, yes, I want to be there.
So I went there all alone. I don’t have—I didn’t have colleagues working, even though I tried to involve other colleagues, they were thinking that’s working something about related to life, and that was weird [laugh]. No, but it was interesting, that. And so I was alone, working on that project with my students. So most of my colleagues were from elsewhere. My friends from the Arecibo Observatory, which I have at that time, they were not working in the—in this field, but at least I have astronomers also [laugh]—
—nearby to talk about astronomy. And then I decided when that conference was announced to go over there, and I was alone there in terms of that—Latinos there, I don’t remember anyone at this—
—and less from Puerto Rico at that time. It was very limited [laugh] and I think it was about 400 or 500, the total number of person that went to the first conference. But I had a great time through all the presentations, [??] talks, that was so wonderful. And I decided, so from that now on, that I would go to all those conferences through the year. I miss it, unfortunately, for different reasons, I miss it, just to—of all those through the [laugh] 20 years ago.
Was your sense when you were at this conference, and there was no Latino or Puerto Rican presence there besides you, was that sort of typical for NASA conferences or other astronomical fields, or did astrobiology sort of stand out as different in that respect?
Oh, no, no, I think it was common for everywhere [laugh]. It was common. It was like that for everywhere, not—because I went to other conference, different Mars conference, [??] Planetary Science Conference, schools of planetary science, and I was usually the only one—the only one from Puerto Rico, and definitely, but Latinos maybe once or so.
OK. Was it—I’m curious, going back to—so that first proposal that you made in ’96, prior to that, had you encountered astrobiology, astrobiologists before, at Goddard maybe, or elsewhere, or was this something that you were coming to kind of independently?
I think it was independently because in 1992, I was—for the NASA Goddard program, I don’t remember anything about astrobiology. I was doing with Adolfo, solar physics, and that’s where I learned ADO[?], a language, computer language used in astronomy. And there was no connection at all.
I think I was lowest—I always loved the topic, and I remember since a kid the search for life in the universe, and the rockets going to those planets. That’s—that was in my background [laugh], thinking about that. So I think when I had—when I was at the university, I was not like—I was force like always before, like, "You want to this? Oh, but this is only physics. There is no astronomy."
There’s—no, no, there was no limitations. I felt free. I can do whatever I want. So that’s what I want [laugh] to get involved.
Yeah, and I know that sort of early to mid-90s, NASA and the NSF both were sort of restructuring exobiology funding, astrobiology funding at that time. Did that really—did that affect your initial proposals or did that affect your funding at all during that period?
No, I think that the motivation was—maybe there’s some motivation with the Mars meteorite. But I remember it was before or after that when I choose that topic. But this case was university funding because it was seed money for that. So you don’t have the issues of exobiology at that time. So, and but I don’t remember if it was—how impactful.
I remember going to a conference, and meeting Dave McKay, the ones—the PI that of the announcement, and chatting a lot about his discovery. And I see—and I was seeing him every time at every Mars conference or astrobiology conference through all these before he died. And I always asked him, "David, how you feel now about your [laugh]—you still believe that you detect it? "Yes, yes, I was, yes."
[laugh] He was confident to the end [laugh].
Yeah, and what was your sense—what was, like, your students’ reactions to astrobiology when you were starting off in—at Arecibo?
[laugh] I think they got very interested about these projects. They were very excited. It was like—I do remember that our colleagues, no, they were not that excited about that. And colleagues saying somethings because the students told me that that’s something that’s not good to the—
Like, yeah, it happens, and it still happens, that idea that astrobiology is something that is not a good field for some reason. But, anyway, but students were very excited. Colleagues from the observatory were very excited, and colleagues from elsewhere—when I started to grow a network, through going to this conference. So I started to grow the—a network of astrobiologists, so meeting a lot of people, and so—and this is something that I was telling my students that, when I started, I was totally alone in terms of this astrobiology field.
I went there not knowing anybody because all my astronomy friends were doing something not related to that. So I started meeting people and meeting people, and getting collaborations and a network. I went out—I wrote a proposal, and it was funded by NASA, just to work at NASA Ames with Chris McKay. I [??] no, that was in 2008 or so [laugh]. Okay, so [laugh] and but so that was part of the network.
So, eventually, I just started to know people, and collaborate, and participate in different—and it takes—so I’m telling you this because I went—or last time I went to—2019, we went to three conference, including the one on astrobiology. So I—when I got a bunch of students—well, just three [laugh], and I was presenting them to everybody, to everybody [laugh]. OK, so I told them, "You will know the people that aren’t in the books." [laugh] So I went to everybody, presenting my students, so they didn’t have that feeling alone, and making friends.
And every time I asked one of my old colleagues, asking them, "Your students, can you introduce your students so I can introduce to my students so they can hang out [laugh] through the conference?" And it was a wonderful experience for them. They—that was very important to have also not only meeting the old people, well-established, but also meeting their students of those people working on—and that was very inspirational for them.
Yeah, in terms of these networks that you were building, I know that the NASA Astrobiology Institute started in 2000 or 2001?
Were you plugged into that right off the bat, or did that come later?
Well, I went to the first conference, and that was it.
And that was it. I was just an outsider [laugh] as any scientist there going through that conference. I do remember—I don’t know what was the year or what conference it was because it was every two years, maybe 2002, 2004, I remember. But somebody noticed me from NASA [laugh] astrobiology. And from the—from NASA Goddard where the office are, there were people there that were interested in minorities. In astrobiology[?], there was none.
And they were looking for people for any minorities there at the conference, and they were starting a program, and, suddenly, in one of those conference, they met me, and they said, "Wait, wait, wait, wait, so you’re here, and we’re going to invite you for this program because we saw you there. And is this your first conference?" "No, this is" [laugh]—
—"I was in the first one." "Did you was in the first one?" [laugh] "Yes, I’ve been—I know [laugh] all this field as it was growing," and they got very excited, and I got a lot of support from them, from the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and he’s director and the people there. So I think we still have a lot of good memories and relationships. And eventually, they invited me—oh, yes.
One of the things that they were planning to involve more minorities at that time is that, "OK, you are in this conference, but we want to involve you more with also participate actually with a research from—as a—so you can bring"—I have still—I was having my own research. "But you can connect your research with other established scientists and NASA centers. So we have program, and we pay you everything to go through a summers or maybe a semester or—and then you bring that back to your campus." As I said before, I didn’t like to travel a lot, to stay away far from home [laugh].
So I initially deny it. [laugh]
I said, "No, no." So I denied that for maybe two or three times [laugh], summers. And, eventually, they convinced me and say, "OK, so"—and I think it was 2007 or 2008, they convinced me, and I participate, and that was going through NASA Ames, and work with Chris McKay.
There was two actions. You decide your scientists that you wanted to work with, and then you write a proposal, and send to that scientist. And the scientist agree, then you can go and work with him. That was the basic plan. So there was two actions for me. Jim Kasting, the—from Penn State, he works with the habitable zone and exoplanets, so I was very interested in that at that time.
And there was Chris McKay and the [??] of Mars [laugh]. And it was a tough choice, and I really knew them. So, usually, and this—they will need to help you because you don’t know—you’re supposed to be starting, and you don’t know these people. But, through the conference, I already have some network with these persons, so they knew me, and I knew their work. And I wanted to, with Jim, and doing something with exoplanets at that time, that’s the topic. But that was computers, and I said, "Well, that’s something I can do in my home." [laugh]
That was nothing adventurous. If I’m going outside, give me something more. So if I go through Chris McKay, that would be to do something experimental there, and related to Mars, and that would be something different, so that’s why I decided [laugh] with Chris. And then it was wonderful. It was a wonderful summer experience and—but then back at home later on. [laugh]
From what I read, the work you did with Chris McKay at Ames was at least leading towards field research on microbial life in extreme environments. Is that right?
Yes, yes, it was the same idea of my original proposal, but also made the system compact enough, small enough, because I was interested in the growth curves of those microorganisms in those condition with shifting temperatures. So, usually, microorganisms start to grow, and there is some lag phase, and these—if they have the right condition, it will grow exponentially. So, but before that, we have a shift in temperatures that probably change your curve. And I was interested in the theory of that curve. So I just wanted a theory of that curve.
Anybody that did this—nobody did this before. OK. So I have to go experimental—
—[laugh] and then design an equipment. It was a small chamber like you have a small test tube, and a laser to measure growth, and everything was automatic. And you will put in the environment that you want to experience, even the Earth environment, to study cycles, the rest of the cycle[?], but also in the Mars chamber to simulate the environment, and to see—it was the only factor there with—we—only the effect of temperatures, of changing temperatures.
And I remember doing the schematics for that at the beginning with Chris, and I did a schematics, and he was trying to build as cheap as possible, using off-the-shelf equipment like the lasers, like steeler[?]. If you—all the components, but he needs the chassis[?], the metal chassis[?] to connect everything. And he took me to the workshop down there, and he has a nice workshop. And the technician there saw my plan, and the first question that he asked me was, "Where’s this—is this going?" [laugh] "What do you mean, where is this going?" "It’s going to the moon and space?"
[laugh] No [laugh], this is all just experimental chamber to test a few things, and then so this—it stay on Earth [laugh].
And [laugh] because they would decide the kind of covering for each metal and whatever, protection, etc. So they got a plan in the computer, and they—with I think water chips[?] and drills, they just carve the aluminum chassis[?] and he also—they—depending on the time of the task, they have an assigned charge for the service. So I remember components, electrical components, both about maybe 400 or 500 just electrical components. But building that chamber was about $3,000—
—[laugh] just to carve the aluminum [laugh], so NASA prices. I said why does this—well, NASA prices. You just try to do it in private industry, it would be a lot cheaper.
These are government’s prices, so [laugh].
And then did you—once you had it, the device completed, you said you used it in the Mars simulation chamber. Did you take it out into the field anywhere to take—?
Yes, I did experiments there, but the plan was to take it home, and do the experiments back at home. And we stood[?] in our lab, we took it—also, I was interested in terrestrial changes in temperature which is not much is there[?] to see if there is any change. There was not a big difference. It was not large enough, the change in temperatures, during the terrestrial [??] cycle, especially here [laugh], the Caribbean. And so in the lab, it was—so I got it then from that information, so I eventually got a final curve, a theory just to—how that growth goes through time. So that was the whole purpose of that.
So I wanted maybe then switch a bit to talk about the Planetary Habitability Lab that you direct now. When did that get started?
OK, so I got this experience with Chris McKay in 2007, I think, and, as I told you, I was thinking about exoplanets at that moment because I was planning also to work with Jim Kasting. So that was in my mind at that time, exoplanets, understanding life in other places. Then, so, that was a wonderful experience for me, and then in 2010 [pause]—oh, yes, OK, now I remember.
During my experience with Chris McKay, we talk about habitability, Mars habitability, you know, life on other planets, habitability. So I got very intrigued about the concept of habitability, and one of the issues that I noticed at that time was that people were, for that concept, were having different definitions, a lot of confusions, and my first step to learn about habituality was to go through biology books. I went through biology books to research[?] more habitability, and I noticed that even the word ‘habitability’ was not there in a biology book. So this is about 2007 or so. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, this is such an important concept, and even to say that we don’t understand or there’s not even the word there. So I did [??] and didn’t find anything.
But I remembered I was doing for a presentation a collection of papers, and I have a software to collect all my papers, and because I was doing things with microbial growth, I have a lot of papers about—that I was reading about biology and different topics, and modeling biology, blah, blah, blah. So I have that in a software which have a AI component. Once you put your papers there, it will also, by some weird AI [laugh], it will tell you which are related or not, so that’s something that is done in [??] but they say that it’s AI. Well [laugh], so, and I remembered I was having a presentation, and collecting a topic. And one paper that I already downloaded because I thought it was interesting, but I didn’t remember a lot of it, it was some time ago, it had a word because I—it was—I was looking—it was something related to habitability on Mars[?], it has a—it was a paper about modeling in biology, and it has a word that for the first time I saw [??] was—can you hear me?
Yes, sorry, it broke up for just a second.
I think you were just about to say what the word, the new word that you saw was.
OK [laugh], a drama [laugh]—
—or life [laugh].
So the word was habitat suitability, habitat suitability. And when I saw that word, and I started to read about that modeling about habitat suitability, that hit me at the moment and said this is habitability. What they’re saying is what everybody was talking about, this is habitability. It’s not called—that’s why I was looking for it, and the word, it doesn’t show up. So then I started to look that habitat suitability word. It was everywhere.
It’s true. If you do a search in Google, you will have—you see it a lot. So there was the definition, how to measure, how in the 1980s there were some ecologists, which are the people doing this modeling—there was field ecologists but these are theoretical ecologists—were struggling with the idea on how to measure habitability; the same problem that I was hearing all about in astrobiology community. So they were dealing with that in the ’60s and the ’70s.
So in the ’80s, the U.S. wild fish[?] reservation program, whatever, I don’t remember the name now, and this government entity was—started to make workshops, started to develop workshops to address that particular problem because, in ecology, everybody was dealing with how to measure this habitability, this habitat suitability. And, I mean, it have different names also [laugh] at that time. So they were having different thing, different matters, and no, no, no, this government entity decided, OK, we need to fix this. Let’s have this workshop in the 1980s, late 1980s, 1981, and to get together and define all these models until a same definition, same modeling procedure, and let’s call it habitat suitability. And that was the start of the topic.
And still even that it was more than 30 years ago, it’s 40 years now, four decades, sorry, it’s four decades, it’s still a very scientific topic, is still it’s not something that your first-year biology, you learn about this [laugh]. And because it was a very mathematical modeling of how to measure habitability, it was actually how to measure habitability and how to define and measure habitability. And then at that point, so it was 2007/2008, I discovered that, and I said, aha, here is something that the Great Mario also told me during that conversation, [??] saying that [laugh] he now working—it’s better to work at the university. It’s more romantic—is that he was telling me about his work at the boilers[?] with the magnetic sensors, and he told me, "Try to create a niche for you, something that you only knew about, something that you will contribute something special different that nobody else, and people will go back to you again and again." Huh, interesting.
So [laugh] that—those words got to me at that point say, wow, here is a niche, something that everybody needs, but there’s a lot of confusion. We are in the same—and why everybody didn’t know that before? So I started to ask colleagues about this topic and this wording and this—nobody knew about that. So I say, OK, we need a full laboratory for that, and that’s [laugh]—
—well, that’s what I was going to. And then to tell something we need a planetary habitability laboratory for that. To work in the theory of this topic, it would take some time. It would take—eventually, our plan was to get the community together, and probably create something like it happened before, maybe through NASA, that we have to get together, and define. But we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
It’s not like—we had the theory here, and if we—and we want to make things compatible within different fields, so this is the first approach. So that’s why, finally, for the decadal[?] survey of 2020, we wrote a paper with a bunch of people, and addressing this problem for the planetary science community.
Right, now, my understanding of it, habitat suitability in ecology is about a specific organism, a specific species, or a specific type of organism in a given environment. And to talk about planetary habitability in astrobiology, you’re having to generalize that concept much broader. It’s about life itself versus non-life; not a specific organism in a specific biotic environment. How did you approach that?
Yes, the thing is that, OK, I see that, and I’m putting together, and we put together a list of things like how people see habitability, and that’s one point in particular. The people are thinking that, OK, this is a particular species. But, also, you can use communities, so the [??] you can adapt to communities, and communities—the only thing that has been done before with that is complete biospheres. But this [??] so this habitat suitability or the definition suitability for life [laugh], that’s it [laugh], in theory. But in practice, the model requires that your habitability measure is proportionate to carrying[?] capacity of a system, or how many researchers[?] are in the system for life. So that’s the key one.
So no matter—so one of the problem is different life-forms, different variables. So as long as you take the problem of different variables, what variables you take to measure habitability, and there’s the issue of people thinking, oh, we cannot measure habitability because we don’t know enough about environment. That’s true also in biology. It’s not that you have all the variables that you need, you have to pick your variables, and he just swayed[?] you how those variables contribute to your habitability of the system. But people got the impression that this habitability has to tell you if the place is habitable or not.
That’s what I want this for. Yes, I know [laugh] but that’s what I would like to know.
Is this place habitable or not? So tell me a formula. They—no, no, no, no, no—
—it’s not like that. That’s an oversimplification of the problem, just a yes or no. It just tells you how these variables that you select good or not for life. How they impact the habitability or the suitability of your system for life is not true—told you that this is habitable or not. And, for example, we did one sample because of the issue within the paper for Mars, and we compared terrestrial, the surface—with Mars right now, the surface.
And we did this habitability calculation, comparing with—we picked two variables: temperature, and water activity or humidity—or humidity. Let’s say ‘humidity’. It’s better. So deserts[?] and we compared those two, and what we get is not that, OK, is Mars habitable or not? There is 1,000 to 10,000 less habitable.
So that’s the information you get. Is that habitable? No, I don’t know. I know that it’s 1,000 to 10,000 less habitable, less resources for life. If there’s some life that—and now it comes to part, if there’s some life that can take that, then it’s habitable.
But, otherwise, it’s not [laugh]. So that’s the other problem. Once you get your metric, what do they find[?], and we call this the age point. Different point, different life-forms, is it a species or a community? At what points in particular that difference will make a transition from not habitable to habitable? That’s other problem that you have, but then you have to know more about the life that you’re considering.
Right, and I know that, yeah, in your work, you have established proxies for habitability, the big one being the Earth Similarity Index. Can you tell me a bit about where that originated and how that developed?
Yeah, so we established in 2010 our lab, so the problem is create index, Habitability Index [laugh]. So that’s [??]. So because I was interested in exoplanet, then we created this Earth Similarity Index, which was a application of what I was learning at that time. They were using ecology to compare environments, these similarity indices, so it’s a—if you look similarity index, that concept alone, you will have a lot of information because they are using ecology to compare environments. Even to compare communities of different species, you have different communities of more or less species, how similar they are.
So you have all environments, they’re using computer AI to—and pattern recognition. If you see a face, how similar is this face than the other, based on some points, and how similar are those points? So this is a very standard mathematics, similarity index. And there are different variations [??] the same points, similarity index. So it was straightforward for me to then we have these planets, and I just want to tell—I have a bunch of numbers, which ones? Pick it for me.
Which one are closest to terrestrial environment? The problem is that because there’s this—still this confusion of habitability, people tend—if I do habitability metrics, "Oh, you are pretending to tell if the planet is habitable or not." "No, this index works to just to compare which planet have closer properties?" What properties? The properties that we pick. So we started with a sample of properties for the paper, but you can pick your properties.
It can use—it can be used as a habitability index if the properties you pick are relevant for life, and if you want to decide, well, at this point, we say it’s habitable or not. There’s something else that you have to add to the model. But, so there was a lot of confusion about when we established that in the—especially by the media, which was called an Habitability Index. So, no, it was a similarity index, and just to compare foreign[?] sample. So it was like a sorting, so when you do sort, you sort one [??] and let’s say you have many properties, and you sort one variable at a time. But you sort one variable, you can sort two variables or three variables; sort one variable, and then the other.
Things get shifted in that process. But this sort everything together through that properties that you pick are closer to the rest of body[?]. So it’s very easy to do a large sample of planet or a lot of data just to pick those that are closer, and that’s it; as simple as that. So that serves to pick targets of interest more easily. OK, I look, so when we say let’s pick something that is closer to the terrestrial environment[?], that’s exactly what the index do for you mathematically, and not by inspection [laugh].
And so that’s—so we—that was in 2011 that we published that paper, and it was together with Dirk Schulze-Makuch, which was the first author in the paper. And Dirk was suggesting an habitability index, so that was two index: one index for habitability, which require more information about the planet; and one in the—of similarity, which may be the same or not depending on the condition of the planet and the—so because if you, for example, similar to Earth, maybe that’s for some light star[?] but red dwarf star similar to Earth is not good.
Yeah, and then so the—I know that the Earth Similarity Index that you use still, and if you look at the catalog of habitable planets, you have an entry for that in the table. The Habitability Index though that was mentioned in that paper or that was discussed in that paper, is that still being developed or used, as far as you know?
The thing is that it needs more information about the planet but we don’t have that. At least the similarity index was—we did that because the—you can pick any variables, those variables that are observable, but also things that you can model. So we can use the index, for example, to—the similarity index to compare the current samples of known planet with some properties that we measure, some properties that we can estimate, or not have it not exactly the known sample.
For example, there are people doing simulations of—3D simulation of planets, trying to explore[?] all the possibilities, and you are generating [??] planets, computer planets, and then you just want to compare those planet to tell which ones that you’re making, and those planets are—have all the properties. So you can put a better[?] index with more properties, and then compare for new sample, which planets are—how many planets are you getting that are more similar to Earth than otherwise? And so that’s one application of that.
And I’m also curious, you know, the connection between habitat suitability and theoretical ecology makes a lot of sense. Have you also tried to incorporate origin of life, abiogenesis models into these sorts of indices?
Not at all, and we don’t even—I don’t even try to do that. In fact, I think that’s one of the recommendation, and we have to make it in writing, and I was planning to do it in a proposal that we are now moving to—for exoplanets, searching for biosignatures. That’s a hot topic.
So we might have the capability [??] life[?] that would be great. Not only the understanding [??] life. But you need some context, and that’s the—your habitability estimate. So do we have—OK, so this—let’s say you find this planet has some strong biosignature like [??] but also by all habitability metrics from the—you have to model a few things [laugh] anyway. Then you say, OK, the range of possibility for habitability is very good, so that strengthen your case that, OK, good. But there’s all issue[?] that you have to take also that, well, you say of the abiogenesis, so the origin of life.
So there should be another way to measure that, and also say, OK, by our understanding of the origin of life, that’s—this is also good, and that will put context to your case, and you need [??] there are three things. Use the—it’s good for the origin of life [??] it’s good for habitability, which is conditions now, and actually you have a detection of life. And things could go crazy at this point because, for example, if you have a planet that you don’t have—that you have good habitability conditions, but you don’t detect biosignatures that make sense anyway[?], OK, there’s not a life have—won’t evolve enough time, whatever.
OK, but let’s say that you detect biosignatures, but all habitability measure is very bad? Then, wait, wait, wait, it has life but it doesn’t look good for habitability, or it doesn’t look good for the origin of life. What is wrong here? Is that my detection? Is life likely[?] on Venus? [laugh]
Maybe even the detection is wrong. If the detection is right, is there something else here that maybe the habitability calculation is wrong [??] to understand because these standards are terrestrial[?] surveys. So that’s telling me, oh, this is life as we don’t know it. [laugh]
Yes, people could argue that because it doesn’t match, and that’s one important to—for the people questioning. But those are [??] are terrestrial surveys[?]. Yes, and they have to be like that.
There has to be like that because if you find something different, you want to tell it’s different because you know what is terrestrial. Then you can see, yes, you can create other models for non-terrestrial life, but you need terrestrial models good to be good. And so there would be a lot of doubt [laugh], and I think doubt will go anyway with experience with Mars meteorite, with experience like a [??] biosphere, with experience like Mars—Venus [??] now. And we pretend to detect biosignatures from this [??] say yes or no. I don’t think that we will have a right answer, so I will hear those news and say, well, here we go again.
OK, let’s see what happens [laugh]. But, so that’s why it’s important some origin of life analysis and habitability analysis to complement any biosignature detection.
Right, so something else that I’m curious about is that the—you’re doing this work on modeling habitability on identifying a catalog of target planets, based on potential habitability. Do you work with the radio astronomers at Arecibo, collaborate with them on any of this, or is—are you sort of separate from that side of things there?
[??] Oh, OK, so we skipped that Arecibo Observatory, OK.
It’s connected to Arecibo Observatory, that’s your question.
How is the connection—
Yes, I should’ve [??]
OK, we’re doing—when we established this PHL then, and I was interested in exoplanet, always I was thinking how I can use the Arecibo Observatory for my interests because I have friends doing the radio astronomy. And I have friends doing something astrobiology with radio astronomy, but that’s SETI, and I was not interested in doing SETI. So but how I can connect—I have it right here, and I am not using it. So that was in my mind through all these years. And, eventually, by 2016, it clicked.
[laugh] Having a chat with friends there, including the discoverer of the first exoplanets of—from Arecibo in 1992, so we were having a discussion, and I was telling him about my interest and blah, blah, blah. And he told me, "Well, you know, red[?] dwarf stars, which are stars that have most of these planets, and one of them[?] also emit radio signals, detectable from Arecibo. We are seeing a few of those." And I said, "Really, you can detect from in radio spectrum?" "Yes." "So, and why is that [??]?"
"Well, usually, during flares[?] activity, you have that and, oh, flares are important for life for the planet. They erode atmospheres and whatever, and that’s important." At that point, I decided, OK, that’s something I like. That’s something I want to do. So I—we started—I was worried at that time because using the observatory might be for a person not trained in radio astronomy to be—to come—too complex. But I ask my friends. They[?] say, "That’s easy."
[laugh] Yes, it was easy. That was easy [laugh]. So it was—that—that’s why it’s very important having a well-established operational laboratory—
—like the observatory because everything is set. Software is set. Everything was automatic, and it was very easy to start using the observatory for what I wanted. So I discussed with the scientists there, and they helped with me with the initial setup for my observation, and they went at my initial observation also, helping me. And definitely it was very easy. And then, so I started observing red dwarfs to try to understand, to see from our catalog which we are starting 2011, pick a few.
Oh, yeah, there are several at Arecibo, there were not that many, only about three. So we started to observe those [??] just to see how active are they in a radio spectrum, because those flares sometimes they meet in [??] but sometimes not, and they meet only in radio spectrum, and they still damage, erode the atmosphere. It’s probably if I see that some of this [??] are emitting more than we expected, then the planet there might not be that good after all.
And that’s something important to know about. And so we started observing [??] many other red dwarf star with planets, a different type of planet, and those potentially habitable that there, and they’re now—they were visible from Arecibo, there were only four, I think, four. So we observe the only four that were observable from Arecibo, and we got some interesting data that we’re working on and soon to publish about flares. For example, we detected flares from Barnard’s Star. He has a planet, a cold planet, but we detected these—it was a quiet[?] star.
People have been trying to detect, and, just recently, other team detected a flare in the optical, I think UV, I think it was UV, and then we detected in the radio spectrum. So I think this is the first detection in the radio spectrum of flare of Barnard’s Star. So the—we were very excited about that. So it’s more or less surface[?] in general.
That paper, astrophysics, is nothing about Barnard[?], it’s nothing about habitability, it’s nothing like that. It’s part of the process. But we mentioned a little bit about that. But the thing is what are other planets, the other stars that we are [??]. And we were planning to start a new program actually through SETI.
Because I am observing this red dwarf star in a broadband spectrum, and our observations are [??] for SETI but they can be used anyway. So we were planning to start in August, late August, but the observatory stopped before that on August 10 with a new student, which we have a NASA proposal for them that was funded to do also the regular observations for radio from flare [??] so it looked in the data, in [??] data that we have for more than three years, and also in the new data just to see if there is something interest. And the thing is that mostly people in SETI are looking for narrowband transmissions, which it makes sense. You have a transmitter, you emit in one frequency because it takes more energy to emit in many frequencies.
And but I notice fighting with radio frequency interference [laugh], I notice that it creates some forests[?] in our data, so we have, in terms of frequency, it should be stable, but then we have some interference here due to terrestrial communications. And I said, "Well, those are not single frequency [laugh] because there are a plethora of frequencies there." So I can look for that, something like that, like a planet that is emitting all frequencies as errors[?] in communication may be stronger [laugh] or maybe because Arecibo was sensitive[?], it look for those fields of interference, and that was the goal: something to look something different, and in—and we are looking at those star with no potential habitable planet and nearby. Then maybe Arecibo is right[?], and not for that. But we have a [??] data, and we still are looking for that.
Excellent, yeah. Now, with the flares from the red dwarfs, I’m curious, are you able to tell if the planets themselves have an active magnetosphere that is—that can deflect the flares, or is that something that you just can’t resolve?
Not at all, no, we wish to. Usually, the flares that you’re detecting is the star. The planet—that’s what we call planet-star interactions, and we would love to see those. But one way is in lower frequency was that we’re outside of the frequency of Arecibo, and people have now already have some heat[?] of those planets, anything through auroras, so that’s planet-star interaction. And but that’s at very low frequencies.
For higher frequency, you need something more active[?] like a brown dwarf, or maybe a Jupiter, but, so far, brown dwarf. And that has been seen from Arecibo, detect a brown dwarf directly with that, so that transition point between star and planet. Other way that we are considering is that if we had something very active in flares, and we know the position of the planet through time, maybe if we’re getting close to our line of sight, then it might affect the intensity. But the problem is that these flares are not that frequent. They’re—and they don’t last long enough, and to have the observatory right at the moment when the planet is crossing, to have to plan it—
—plan that ahead of time just to see in the future what would be the time that the planet will be close, and when it’s not, and that would take years—
—to observe that. But we plan to do something like that eventually, not with Arecibo, now trying to use other observatories.
Right, of course. And I guess to continue just talking about Arecibo, I know that the radio astronomy was not your main work, but I’m curious just how—what it was like working at Arecibo from the hurricane in 2017 up through this past November, and just if you could maybe talk about your experience being there through all of that?
Well, see, my first visit at the observatory when I was 12 years—
—which I had the opportunity to go below the dish, so that staff there took me below the dish, and now I know that that was maybe a peak[?] treatment [laugh] that he gave me. So, now, it still amaze—it was still amazing every time going there. The observatory is—I was telling you that it’s very automatic, and most of the scientists use it remotely, so they are doing the observations from their office, from their home. But I was able to be there, so that’s what I tried to do most of observations to be there, and also bring people, students and also to learn and see the process of taking the data, and see it real time the data there. And I was surprised probably about two times, I had the opportunity to see somebody there doing observations [laugh].
[laugh] "Are you doing a survey from here? Why?" No, usually people doing observation for the first time, trying to learn, they just come [laugh] physically. But, otherwise, they do it remotely. Only the operator is there, and doing the observations remotely. So every time going there, mostly it was during the nighttime because there is observations during the daytime too, it was amazing.
You feel a lot of control. That massive structure, the Gregorian, the receivers there, that control—and you have a pick a life of what was going in that direction in particular. That was—that’s amazing. And see the data flowing through, it was always a wonderful, amazing experience. Definitely will miss that. My last observation physically there was January 2 or 3, 2020.
That was—then we have earthquakes in January, which stop our observations. I brought people there that January. But then after the earthquakes, it was stopped for two weeks for inspections. Nothing wrong, and it continued to operate, but then the pandemic. And while other observatories were closing down or ceasing operations, Arecibo always work remotely with little people as possible, so we were—I was doing all the observations program from right here from my office, my home office. So I was doing my observations.
I did also with people, inviting people to the [??] and see that alive and discuss[?] and we have a good interaction, just to try to keep up [??]. So I did a lot of observations in March, April, May, June, July, until August 6, yes, August 6. It was a Thursday, I think, and then, on Monday, the first cable failure. And we had a lot of observations planned for this semester and the other—in that semester and this semester, so we missed that.
And I’ve talked to some people and, you know, there’s broader discussions within the—
Sorry, you asked me also from—for the Hurricane Maria.
We did observations before Hurricane Maria, and that was the normal time because after the Hurricane Maria, the telescope got—and once when we were starting to work, it was not that good calibrated, although the dish just changed a little bit of shape. So you have—well, you lose various[?] sensitivity, and it was obvious in the data, just obvious in the data that before and after data that—so it was weird [laugh] in the data because you had a lot more noise, and sensitivity was ambiguous[?] maybe to—depending on frequency, 50%, 70%. And so—and they have—since then, they have been trying to calibrate it better, and it means you can do the panels[?] physically change that.
They were trying to do that also, but also in software to do something to make calibration better. So it took some time. It was working after Maria but it was not as before. It was a fine-tuned instrument before Maria. It was so excellent. But after Maria, you have 70% of telescope now [laugh], but the telescope is worse because of the interference. It was still good enough, still higher than any in the world, not considering [??] in China. It was still good enough but not as before [??].
And I know that there were problems with the power grid across the island for a long time after the hurricane. Was Arecibo running on independent power generation for all of that?
Yes, they have their own power generation, not only for backup and emergency but also because they actually need it for the radar. The radar, they have their own power to charge the observatory and—but it was not—like, it was prepared to be like powerless for a lot of time, and they started doing observations. So this was September 19, 2013, the hurricane. I remember that it was only one week after that that I learned[?] of the observatory. I was totally worried because of the wind speed, and I thought that maybe the Gregorian would be running around through the island like a ball—
—because I thought no way that will resist that. That cable would be fine but that Gregorian will get a weight, and will be destroyed. So we were worried about that. And one week after the hurricane, we—I got a message from one of my colleagues there, telling me that every—that he was fine [laugh]. And I asked him, "Wait, what about the Gregorian?" [laugh] "Yes, the Gregorian is fine." [laugh]
"What? The Gregorian is fine?" Yes, only it’s—one of the antennas there that—one of the receivers there was—fell down, but, which was mostly used by the people doing [??] science. But you can use any of those, so it was fine, and that antenna broke, and was not working anymore since then. But it was not that important because you still have the Gregorian. It was the main instrument, and it was working on power.
And I think it was in December or November that it had—that there were enough power also to move the platform because the power was for computers, and the platform—I know people had started to use before that not moving the Gregorian to scan—drift scans. But they have enough power later on. And then by December, they were doing radar, and mapped one asteroid. So they took the opportunity, one of the [??] that was scheduled, and it was complete[?].
But the most important thing and the most dramatic thing is that I didn’t know at the time is that this was September 19, then October, with our [??] with our internet, and it started to get internet one week because I had a landline which I was not—that was providing me internet, but I was without power, and I was using a generator, and I was not considering using the—going through internet. I was mostly looking at the news. I look on news for what’s happening through the island. And then decided, OK, let me with—looked through the internet, and started to learn, and talk with friends and so. But I didn’t know this because I did not spend a lot of time in the internet [laugh] during those times. Just go straight to the news.
That by October, I think middle of October, one month after that, it was announced that Oumuamua, the interstellar asteroid, was discovered, and Arecibo was not there, was not operational to miss[?] one of the probably—one of the biggest opportunity to see an interstellar [??] that one of the issue was the dimensions in optical. They say maybe it’s one to 10 radio, like a cigar, which people started to think, you know, alien spaceship [laugh] and that kind of stuff. But in optical, you cannot be sure. But in radio with radar, you can be definitely sure, and tell you the actual shape of that.
We calculated the—if it’s—if Arecibo was able—was capable to look at it, and, yes, but it was marginal detection. It was far but it was also small. So it—we weren’t—we are not sure that we definitely would be able to tell, but probably [laugh], probably. Well, we didn’t try. Anyway, there was no Arecibo. We missed that big opportunity, once-in-a-lifetime, and we forever we’ll been talking about Oumuamua, like the something weird that you didn’t know much about, and we missed that opportunity forever.
Yeah, I’m also curious, just in the wake of this past August when the cable snapped, and then in November when the dish collapsed, there was a lot of talk in the broader scientific community about initially repairs, and then—and now potentially rebuilding. And I wonder just if you can tell me, to whatever extent you can, what are the internal conversations at Arecibo about those issues?
Well, because I am—my employee knows[?] the Arecibo Observatory and the university, I can talk.
[laugh] And, but still, I see people talking about probably mismanagement, lack of funding, lack of interest, missing the early warnings, maybe even before Hurricane Maria, that something was wrong, there were actions taken, like the cables were painted just to avoid erosion. People are suggesting that probably due to Maria, seawater just also came through the cables, and accelerate the erosion of the cables, the corrosion of the cables. So I think so many things, so many ideas, and, finally, I get the impression it’s everything [laugh]. It’s everything, that so many things happens.
So definitely Hurricane Maria was the biggest stress; not even the earthquakes were giving that much stress. That platform received a lot of pressure. Those cables were stretched [laugh] to the limit there with the winds. And I think if we’re going to make the biggest culprit of many, probably I will say, and this is my opinion, would be Hurricane Maria. And even that they have inspections, and they did repairs there and there, but I think when you have that strands[?] inside the cable, and there are many strands[?], hundreds of strands[?], it’s very hard to tell what happened inside those cables then.
So I don’t know in particular what happened, but my impression is a [??] of possibilities. So if we’re going to go back in time, probably after Maria, a program to replace the cables. Don’t [??] cables, just replace those cables—just replace those cables with new ones that you are confident that match the specifications. And that will be a slow program, maybe through one year, and by 2018/2019, all the cables will be replaced. And that was—I think that would change everything.
Yeah. I just have a couple more questions that I want to make sure we get to before we wrap up.
One, I want to go back to—you mentioned in 20/25 years ago, being the only Puerto Rican and one of the only Latinos at these conferences, but then also the NASA minority fellowships after that. And then so I’m just curious, now, when you go to a conference, is it improved? Do you—are there—what is it like now?
Definitely, I see a lot more diversity at all levels, and, I mean, also Black people, Latinos, and, yes, other minorities. The woman, they were not a minority in astrobiology. So, you know, that people are telling that minority in astronomy or not in astrobiology. There are many representation in biology, so there was no issue. From the beginning, people say no, the woman in astrobiology, that’s an important thing that we have to support because they’re a minority. They’re not. They’re well-represented [laugh].
But for Blacks and Latinos, definitely it was something that—I only remember probably the first one that I met at one of those conference [??] a Mexican, which was—she was working with—she was, at that time, a graduate student of Jim Kasting at Penn State. And so we have a strong connection at some point during those first conference as well. We can speak Spanish [laugh].
And one other thing I wanted to touch on is, so, you have a very visible internet profile. You’re a very sort of prominent sort of figure in astrobiology, more broadly in [??] popular. Well, that’s my sense.
And I’m curious, you know, we sort of touched on it a little bit about how, in the ’90s especially, astrobiology was sometimes seen as fringe or not fully respectable by some people. And my sense, at least, is that has changed substantially over the last—
—you know, 20 years or whatever. And I was just wondering if you could speak to that, you know, your public engagement, and how you see people responding to astrobiology from then to now?
OK, I try—I’ve been trying to hide myself in my rock[?] through all this time.
So that [laugh] what you call that profile has—there’s a reason for that. There’s a reason for that. I get—well, probably—well, the attention is because of astrobiology. That’s an attention-taker, that people are interested in doing that field. But it’s more, more than in Puerto Rico, it’s one of the international [laugh] community, more than locally.
And I don’t like that much of terms[?] appeared on TV, but I have the pressure of my friends [laugh]—
—that convince me and told me, "That’s good for your science. That’s good for your lab. That’s good for your students." I even have the pressure, a different pressure, when I was—one of the local channels were planning to interview more [??] that was rare. Most people just want [??] some topic, so it was a long program, and here. And I said no [laugh]. And [laugh] my wife told me, "Your mom will be proud of you if you do that."
[laugh] It’s hard to say no to that.
[laugh] I did it.
I said, "Mom look at me on the TV." "OK." [laugh] So I’ve been trying to hide, but I know now that it’s not good. You have to do it. You have to do it. It’s—I feel now more probably in the early ’90s, your science is to be—you have to be in your own rock[?]. It’s not that you have to be too—outreach is not important, location’s not important, that important.
But that’s changed a lot. And now we see that, and I feel now like this is my responsibility. This is—and so many [??] this is your responsibility to do it good. Even I got attention from a fringe media [laugh] about it, that they’re covering a topic like UFO and [??] and I say for those, no. But I know in my mind, because some people have told me, "This is your opportunity for those that watch those programs and believing all of that, to change their mind. It is your job and responsibility to do that." They almost convinced me but I say [laugh] no—
—still say no [laugh], say no. But I know that’s—that is important. So you see that it is something, and that’s something that I want—I’m trying to cultivate with my students that that responsibility that you have to, you know, that don’t [??] any request that consider it something important that you want people to understand what you’re doing. There are many misinformation out there that that’s part of your contribution.
And I remember a colleague that was questioning to me, like, I was doing a press release for something, "Why are you doing press release for that? That’s not good to do a press release for that." That idea that you don’t have to be like that, and I told, "That is now my responsibility." If I don’t do that, it’s like, at some point, science will [??].
You write your paper. Oh, we need a press release as part of that paper. It’s a request [??]. But this is something not interesting. It doesn’t matter because even [laugh] it’s something as [??] mathematically, I want people to read that instead of the paper, and learn.
Because it will still be easier than the paper, right? Yes, OK, so it’s important to be there for others to see it. Maybe somebody got—would be interested in that topic. It would be a hook for somebody in science. So that’s—probably that would change like that in the future, that it will be something definite as part of the journal requirements to write with a short description like a press release to be available also beyond the abstract.
Well, even if you see there’s some—I think the National Science Foundation is forcing some of the work that I—they write—or some journals, a abstract, and an abstract for a general public. They’re enforcing some journals something like that. So it’s, yeah, that’s the general public, that’s like a press release. People can use that as a press release, and that will be easier for journalists.
So the astrobiology field in particular change people with—was thinking, and I was, at the beginning, thinking about extraterrestrial life as something important, something that I’m curious about when you start in this astrobiology field in the ’90s, for me in particular. Other people are thinking that’s something like it’s impossible [laugh]. Forget about extraterrestrial life. But, at the beginning, you are like that, thinking that’s exciting. And once you learn more astrobiology, and [??] all the difficulties that life might have through a planet, and I mean in terms of biology, in terms of the planet’s stable enough to keep that life going on, there’s so many things that can go wrong.
So, once you learn about that in astrobiology, you feel like, wow, life on Earth is amazing. So now, I don’t feel—I don’t care anymore [laugh] like [??] astrobiology, but I don’t care anymore—it’s not the same about extraterrestrial life. I don’t feel like this is important. Now, Earth life is important. It’s—it give you more appreciation of terrestrial life.
And people questioning right now, well, looking for life on other planets, that’s something impossible. Wait, wait, wait, wait, let me tell you something. What are we are? We are a planet with life. Oh, and intelligent life too. Is that something absurd? No? Right. Well, so, that means that we have proof.
We are looking at something that we have proven really: a planet with life [??] are possible in the universe. Yes, we are looking just for more.
But just [??] I am not looking for square planets or something like that—
—something that you’ve never seen before.
So this is totally logical to look for. It’s nothing to make fun because if you make fun of this, you’re making fun of Earth [laugh].
Well, we do that too [laugh].
[laugh] That’s fair.
[laugh] So, and it’s something very important. [unrelated conversation] And so this is something very important to learn about, and you get more appreciation about our planet. So that’s the thing. And I always joke with my students about how important Earth is in this context right now.
That if we ever have an interaction with another intelligent species, my questions won’t be about them, asking about their technology, where they live. No, I don’t care about that anymore. My questions will be if things like have you been in our planet before? And they say yes, do you have videos?
How long in our history? But, no, we went when the dinosaurs when they—do you have videos or—
—you have something that, no matter what technology we build in the future, we’ll be able to see.
You have something unique. And, no, we have videos and information[?]. What?
That’s something amazing. And this sounds so far-fetched but, right now, we’re looking, for example, in the Orion Nebula. We’re looking at stellar[?] system being formed, and we have pictures of that.
So in a billion years, if we still [laugh]—
—probably we’ll be traveling to those systems, and those systems will have planets. And we will—maybe we’ll [??] show we have pictures of your planets being formed. So, and that will be my first question, and after asking the past. And the next question is about the future. "Do you know something about our future that we should worry about, like a star that is"—
—"that is exploding nearby or something? Actually, why are you here?"
Because you don’t need some—anything about us. You managed the ability to travel through the stars, it means you have to conquer so many things that we are nothing for you.
But, anyway, you decided to come and appear on Earth, and you know that that will impact us. That will change us psychologically, whatever. It may impact us somehow.
And you didn’t care because you’re here. So I worry about [laugh]—
—why you’re here [laugh]. Do you have some bad news, and that’s why you have to come? So it will be questions about us, past and future, something to think that we won’t be able to learn, and then maybe through a coffee, I will ask about their planet or their civilization [??] whatever.
Another one in the universe [laugh]—
This will be an interesting conversation.
So we’ve covered pretty much everything I had planned out. But I’m curious if there’s anything else that you think we should have—we should talk about or you wanted to bring up just about your working career, about astrobiology in general? And if not, that’s fine, but I want to give you the opportunity.
Well, I probably forgot to mention when we missed the opportunity with the Arecibo Observatory to see Oumuamua, that was the first interstellar asteroid. But there was a second interstellar asteroid, Borisov. And that Borisov we have observatory [laugh], and we were—and one of my students actually was the one that proposed in the observatory to use the observatory.
I trained him to use the observatory so he was able to work alone, and he told me, "Can we observe Borisov?" "Yes." Everybody—when it was announced, everybody was looking at it, so he asked if Arecibo—I don’t know nobody now, probably somebody will be interested also in doing observations. And he said that "OK, I wanted to do it." "Just go ahead, do it."
So he wrote a proposal alone. I just review it. And he was granted time to do observations, so that was an emergency[?] proposal because after the announcement, after two weeks or so, it was approved, and we—when we got the approve, there was a caveat of that. There was other team that was proposing to observe it using Arecibo [laugh].
So they requested, OK, why you want me—the manager there [??] "You can do the observations independently, two things, we can grant that, or you can join forces if you wish to." So I told, "OK, join forces. You will create more colleagues." [laugh]
"You will build a team for yourselves." So all of the—so we did all the observation together, but he took the lead on writing the paper with the other teams also. And so the paper is almost finished, and then it was good. He’s going now to graduate school, and big universities decided to—like Princeton, Harvard, he [laugh] took the big ones. He sent to the big ones, and they already send him interviews. He has a strong career with the observatory, and his name is Kevin Ortiz Ceballos.
And, if you look his name in the web, you will see—
I’ll look him up.
—what he has been through. And so I think he’s one of the big successes of this. Also, he was doing physics in university here in astronomy program, but through Arecibo he has that astronomy, and then that supported him for making a strong, a very strong application for graduate school; not only in grades but also experience and also finishing a paper with a big telescope [laugh].
[laugh] Very cool. Great, well—
So that’s something that I forgot to remember.
No, thank you, and thank you so much for doing this interview with me. I very much appreciate it.
My pleasure. Thank you very much for the interest [laugh], really. I think that’s my topic, and that’s, I think, our largest contribution in this respect, the definition and measure of habitability, and that’s what we tried—and I’m telling you this so other learns and push it, OK, that [laugh] we have to use the tools available just to incorporate those and go ahead and make this thing more standard, which is now is the [??] [laugh]. [End of recording]